24/04/2017 09:25 BST | Updated 24/04/2017 09:25 BST

Publishing Still Matters - But Who'll Pay For It?

In 1761, a businessman opened shop in a modest address in London. Nobody noticed; after all, modest businesses open all the time. There's no blue plaque on the site and most of us have never heard of him.

In 1761, a businessman opened shop in a modest address in London. Nobody noticed; after all, modest businesses open all the time. There's no blue plaque on the site and most of us have never heard of him.

But we should. Because when Joseph Johnson - a publisher originally from Liverpool - opened his press for the first time, he was precipitating a publishing revolution whose echoes would sound down through the ages.

The late Enlightenment was a time that saw an unprecedented rise in literary output, most of it from what would now be considered small presses and home publishing. With the big-money and specialized industries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries still to emerge, a publisher might also be printer, book-seller, distributor, advertiser, agent and many other things beside (Johnson also sold patent medicine as a sideline). His concern for authors is almost unheard of today. As scholar Leslie Chard explains, Johnson not only fed and often housed his authors, but "served as banker, postal clerk and packager, literary agent and editor, social chairman, and psychiatrist."

It was this nurturing that saw some of the most important publications of the Enlightenment see their day. Johnson would go on to publish Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Malthus, as well as feminist economist Priscilla Wakefield and religious dissenters such as Joseph Priestley; he would have also published Thomas Paine's manuscript of Rights of Man were it not for government intervention.

So a single publisher ended up helping to bring about feminism, secularism, Malthusian economics, and one of the most important political earthquakes in history. And yet he did it all from a modest series of addresses, on a modest income, with often modest returns. He did it, in a manner of speaking, because he took the time to care about his authors.

I mention Johnson because I've just heard that an indie publisher from Liverpool, Dead Ink, is currently appealing for crowdfunding help. Because this represents a kind of hybrid between the digital and analogue worlds, I'd like to take a moment this time to discuss the implications of this.

Dead Ink is part of a vibrant underground literary scene currently bubbling up in the North and Scotland, a scene which includes small presses like Tilted Axis, Peepal Tree, Blue Moose, Saraband and 404 Ink as well as short story outlets like Comma. Like many of those houses, Dead Ink describes itself as a platform "to develop the careers of emerging authors" and has commenced valuable projects such as the compendium of working class voices "Know Your Place", anti-elitist "Landscape Punk", as well as publishing award winning authors like Naomi Booth.

Here's the thing though. There's a difference between the publishers above and something like Bloomsbury or Random House. The outfits above don't make money.

I don't mean that that they fail to make money. They never expect to. These kind of publishers operate for the most part on non-market models. The fact is that niche publishing in the age of the web can only usually expect to sell a few hundred copies of a title. Books that actually recoup costs and make serious money are thin on the ground. Instead we have a whole universe of fascinating indie, experimental literature that can only exist because people care - take Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, a leftfield work that went on to win major prizes but only happened in the first place because a small indie publisher recognized her talent. Someone, in other words, had just enough resources to take a risk.

A generation ago, arts councils with healthy budgets could afford to patronize presses like Dead Ink. But seven years into a government that sees creativity as a loss to GDP, indie outlets are struggling for grants. The same will be even worse in the US under Trump.

And hence the crowdfunding. I've written in these pages about some of the problems of Kickstarter and its relation to creativity; certainly there are concerns about drawing on fans for donations (a couple of years ago prize-winning author Julian Gough offered to sell his own blood to fund a book.)

But I also recognize that this is the new reality. Back in Johnson's day, there was no indie market and your books swam or sunk according to the whims of the general public. Today many authors will simply not get a voice if some kind of funding outside of the market is found.

"We're hoping to give a platform to authors that we feel aren't represented in the mainstream," Nathan Connolly, publishing director of Dead Ink, told me. These include stories about anarchist squatters, green politics; they want to publish female accounts of toxic masculinity and the dangers of city bankers indulging in woolly lifestyle tourism. Urgent subjects for urgent times.

As a writer myself, I think it's sad that crowdfunding rather than state patronage or book sales are the new normal for supporting leftfield literature. But I also think it's better to do it this way than not do it at all. We live at a time when incisive social commentary is more important than ever and yet harder and harder to monetize - hence the major newspapers we see now appealing for donations.

"I wanted to work in publishing, but I couldn't afford to do an unpaid internship in London. So I started Dead Ink," Connolly told me. His aim - like many loosely grouping themselves into what they're calling the "Northern Fiction Alliance" - is to shake up a London-centric publishing industry, to beat a path from places like Liverpool to the heart of the nation's cultural consciousness.

They're big aims. No doubt it'll be a challenge. But I also think it's good that someone takes on that challenge. I remember another publisher who had a similar idea: Joseph Johnson. Like these small presses, Johnson cared less about the bottom line than he did about writers. He nurtured authors and their talents, realising that important ideas need to be heard. The rest is history.